Alaska Groundfish Overview
There are many types of groundfish that reside on Alaska’s ocean floor including species such as sablefish (black cod), Alaska pollock, Pacific cod, and several flatfish including yellowfin sole, rock sole, and Atlantic flounder (also known as turbot).
Sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria), or Alaska blackcod (though not a member of the cod family), is a North Pacific groundfish that is prized for its delicious, oily meat. The meat is often lightly smoked, because it tends to be mushy. The blackcod reaches lengths of three feet and can weigh up to 8-10 pounds. For decades, the black cod fishery was exploited almost exclusively by Japanese fishermen. However, since the passage of the Magnuson Act, the number of domestic boats fishing black cod has grown very quickly, especially in the Gulf of Alaska.
Distinguishing Characteristics: A dark green to blackish colored back with light gray colorations on both the throat and belly; the lining of the gill covers is black
Increased foreign and domestic demand has driven prices high enough to convert what was once an “off-season” fishery into an exceptionally profitable one. Recently, sablefishing has boomed. However, over-fishing and high by-catches by halibut fishermen and factory trawlers have resulted in the shortening of what was once a year-round season. The sablefish longlining season is governed by the IFQ system and runs from March 15 to August 15. Sablefish commands the highest price of any groundfish in the North Pacific and is still a very lucrative fishery. For more information see the section on IFQs.
Domestic demand for pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) fillets, nuggets, and surimi surged early in this decade, so factory trawlers harvested huge numbers of this fish. The fish swim in large schools on the bottom making fishing relatively easy. The larger pollock measure close to 3 feet, but the overall average is closer to 13 inches. Fishermen fear that foreign factory trawlers, which are excluded from fishing in U.S. waters, harvested too many pollock in international waters, creating an area better known as the “Donut Hole.” Now, not necessarily due to overfishing, stocks have declined, leaving many questions as to the future of this fishery. If pollock stocks decline as many expect, the gap in supply will probably be filled primarily with Pacific cod.
Distinguishing Characteristics: Olive green or brownish colors on back, silver flanks, white belly, and black fins
With the passage of the Magnuson Act, foreign boats were nudged out of Alaska waters. Also, the price of sablefish and pollock jumped and the domestic groundfishing industry began its current boom. Because pollock stocks are unlikely to keep up with the surging demand for valuable whitefish, many fishermen expect cod (Gadus macrocephalus) to fill the fishing gap for them in the Bering Sea. However, Aleutian Island fishing grounds have already seen some slight declines in cod stocks. The largest known cod weighed in at 211 pounds and fish weighing 50-60 pounds are fairly common.
Distinguishing Characteristics: Colors vary from brown to gray; white belly; whisker-like mark on the lower jaw; three distinct dorsal fins.
Another prized fish in the Alaska fisheries is the lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus), but it is usually caught inadvertently in nets set for other fish. Lingcod may be difficult to fish for because they tend to live in waters that are hard to access. The lingcod can grow to over 60 pounds and makes for very good eating.
Distinguishing Characteristics: Slender bodies, double nostrils, large mouths with heavy sharp teeth, and a head that may be one quarter the size of the whole fish. Body color is black or blue, varying according to specific habitats.
There are over 300 species of flatfish living in oceans all around the world. However, yellowfin sole, rock sole, and Atlantic flounder are the species most commonly found in Alaska waters. These fish get the name flatfish because of their unconventionally flat bodies; adding to their strange appearance is the fact that both their eyes are on the top of their heads. These fish may become increasingly important sources of whitefish if pollock stocks decline. If Pacific cod stocks are insufficient to meet the demand, and whitefish marketing efforts are successful, the flatfish industry may surge. You may also hear the term turbot in reference to some flatfish species.
Distinguishing Characteristics: Long dorsal and anal fins run down almost the full length of the body and then come to an apex at the middle, giving it a diamond shape. The color of the body is brown or blackish depending upon the environment in which the fish lives.